Learning from Tiny Tower: Mobile Gaming and the Post-Industrial Society

Ever since Wii came along and swept everyone from me to my seventy year old retired Teamster uncle into the world of gaming, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that video games have become a tool by which our future robot overlords are retraining us to perform various tasks after the big takeover.* Big Brain Academy, in particular, reminded me of those later scenes in 1984, when the Party had smashed every bone in Winston’s hands and he had to learn to write again using a big pencil, like a kindergartener. 4423… 3244. Do-re-mi…mi-re-do. Memorize the faces and match the frog to the dog. When a game tells me to take an order on the phone and then tell it back to the game – “calzone, risotto, and a soda, to go please!” – I begin to wonder. Having worked in restaurants before, I can safely say that taking someone’s order on the phone is an experience I would never have expected to repeat for fun. How far are we, really, from learning to change a robot’s diaper?

Mobile gaming introduces a whole new wrinkle to this dystopian scenario, and oddly enough games like Angry Birds and Tiny Tower bring with them an agenda that is much more ideological and allegorical than physical. I say oddly because these apps appear to be cheap, fleeting, and even disposable – who would have thought a 99 cent game that’s all about throwing birds at pigs would have been the blockbuster cultural production of the last year or so, not a movie that cost $100 million to make and $12 to see? Yet these games have a message and they’re on a mission. If the Wii is teaching us the cognitive and tactile skills to function better within a human-computer interface, then games like Tiny Tower are providing a complete social, ethical, and emotional blueprint for how a future cybernetic market society will work.

Welcome to the reeducation camp. Cost of admission is free, but you can upgrade to a better bunker for 99 cents.

I was first introduced to Tiny Tower earlier today, and I feel comfortable writing a neo-Marxist exegesis of it after a few hours. I resisted the iPhone for a long time – longer than I resisted the iPod but not as long as I held off getting any kind of cell phone in my younger, stronger, more idealistic days. Getting the iPhone opened the door to apps, which has finally led to mobile gaming. I have always despised Scrabble and yet I find myself screaming at the friend sitting next to me for scoring a preposterous number of points with the equally preposterous word “Jee.”

In any case, Tiny Toweris its own strange little world, like any good game. The game consists of building one floor after another of a highrise building, and populating it with stores, restaurants, apartments, and people. The player accumulates money over time from sales and rent to spend building another floor and stocking the stores; one can also use real world money to buy extra money in the game to speed things along (a “hurry” gets things done faster, but at a price), although it’s entirely possible (and wise) to play the game without spending any actual cash. Time is the key element, along with (secondarily) complying with the game’s demands, such as finding various tenants when a package or a guest arrives for them.

Real-life bitizens in their natural habitat

The strangest thing about the game is the role of the player. My friends first explained it to me as “Sim City meets Sim City,” which is true up to a point – the player is the planner/developer/mayor/God who builds a world, although the latitude of choice in Tiny Tower is far more constricted. (One can choose whether to put a retail outlet or dining establishment on a floor, but they don’t decide whether it’s a coffee shop or a women’s clothing store.) The player is the owner of everything; the Tiny Tower is a giant mill village without the mill, where the potential tenants show up, move in, and get a job in one of the restaurants or shops in the tower. My first tenant, G. Simmons (if I were a landlord, I think I would want some pretty good references before I let Gene Simmons move into my property), was rapidly hired in the coffeeshop right above the “Plainlake Apartments” that occupied my first floor. Talk about selling your soul to the company store.

And what a company store it is. Who lives in this 21st century, mobile, e-mill village, and what do they do there? What does the economy of Tiny Tower look like? There are only five options for a new floor – retail, food, service, entertainment, and creative. This is a fine image of the post-industrial information economy. There are photo studios, comedy clubs, coffee shops, apartments – in other words, we have a handful of industries that cater to people’s needs for shopping, dining, and other services, plus the all-important “creative class” of artists, graphic designers, musicians, and the like. It is a video game vision of the live-work-play environment that New Urbanist intellectuals have championed and developers have marketed to arty bohos and Trader Joe-jos since the 1990s.

Tiny Tower approaches this new economy of service and entertainment in some strange ways. A few of the classifications raise eyebrows; for instance, a “soda brewery” clearly appears to be a family-friendly version of a microbrewery, with little vats and kegs. One would expect a brewery to be categorized as food or service or even manufacturing, but it is “creative.” So is a photo studio. Meanwhile, a comedy club is “recreation.” In any case, the overall picture is one of a dense urban landscape of hip consumerism: sushi bars, glass studios, arcades, bookstores, and the all-important foundational element, the coffeeshop. The comedy club sells “LOLs,” “LMAOs” and “ROFLs,” and the tower’s residents post about the minutiae of their little lives on a social network called Bitbook. “Someone stole my rug,” resident Clayton Wood said earlier today.** “It really tied the room together.” One “bitizen” offers bagpipe, tuba and drum lessons while another tries to generate interest in starting a band by announcing his skill with the accordion. The bitizens are defined both by their work and what they consume.  The player gets extra points for matching a worker to his or her “dream job,” and the word bubbles above the bitizens’ heads are always filled with the products they want to buy.

Even your imaginary friends are obsessed with The Big Lebowski and Justin Bieber

Notably, some among these shopping, gossiping bitizens are “VIPs,” who possess greater financial resources and cultural influence. When they arrive on the scene, they can buy out the entire stock of any store they visit or cause it to have many more customers.  When they attend a shop, suddenly many more bitizens want to go there. They resemble those influential consumers, coveted by marketers and advertisers, who possess the income and prestige to drive trends by their shopping choices. In Tiny Tower, every industry may be created equal, but some consumers are more equal than others.

Beyond sushi, shoes, and music, there are two other industries that are essential to Tiny Tower – obvious even, to the point of being “hidden in plain view.” Construction and real estate can be added to the post-industrial menu of economic options in the game, but with a profound and subtle difference. Construction is absolutely necessary for the game to function, and when each new floor is built a crew of men in orange jumpsuits and hard hats show up to do the work. (Each floor is more expensive than the last, for reasons of cost as well as the fact that the player should have more money from rent and sales to spend as the building rises.) These characters are ubiquitous but silent – they have no needs, no deliveries, no consumption, and they certainly don’t live in the tower. They recall the Doozers in Fraggle Rock, who were always there working but were still separate and alienated from Fraggle society.

More welcome on Tiny Tower than Laugh-In

The other essential industry is real estate – the role of the player, who has all the agency that peripheral yet necessary characters like the construction workers lack. The barristas and artists who pay the rent, work in the businesses, and consume the goods are all pawns of the owner, who is visually absent, not represented by an avatar or icon, yet omnipresent in the form of the person who is playing the game. Not a bad schema for the finance-insurance-real-estate (FIRE) economy of the post-industrial future, right?

Mo money, mo problems

Time, again, is literally money in Tiny Tower, further underlining the importance of finance. By doing good deeds, complying with the game’s demands, and making wise choices about inventory and management, the player can accumulate more money faster, but the game still fundamentally depends on a constant flow of new money to make the process of continual expansion work. No one knows where the money comes from, and it doesn’t matter at all. (Presumably, the stream of cash comes from a mutual fund or rent from other Tiny Towers, in tiny cities in other tiny states. Maybe it is my TIAA-CREF income from investment in Minnesota’s Mall of America.) The point of the game is, of course, accumulation – more floors, more business, more people. There are always more people who show up looking for housing and work. If Tiny Tower has an underlying economic theory, it is one of continual growth – a demand-side policy with a ready supply of easy money, always satisfying new and different needs, but primarily those of residence and leisure. Manufacturing is generally absent, except to the extent that new housing and new space are manufactured; the working class is present only in the form of the old-line “hard hats” who build floors and the new working class of the coffeeshop.

From a media studies perspective, there were things about the game that were hard for me to understand at first. Unlike the Sim line of games, Tiny Tower is far more limited in the player’s freedom to be creative. One does not get to name the characters or the retail establishments, for instance. And in terms of “play,” the dynamic is hard to understand – there are rules and procedures, of course, like any game, but who is one playing with or against? You can see friends’ towers and compare to see what they are getting and how high they’ve built, but there is no direct interaction between towers as far as I can tell. Much of the game seems to be simply pushing buttons and doing what the computer asks you to do—take this person to the third floor, restock the coffeeshop, and so forth. When does nagging end and gaming begin?

There are aspects of Tiny Tower and its peers that are truly innovative, though. For example, mobile games have both more and less “immediacy” (a favorite media studies term) than traditional games, whether one compares them to Solitaire or Trivial Pursuit or Super Mario Bros. They do not require one or two or three people to be together in the same time and space to play a game, and they are of no particular or constant duration. The game is always with you when you have your phone, and can be played on impulse and at one’s convenience, rather like the old, cumbersome practice of playing a chess game from afar and mailing one’s moves to a distant opponent. The games allow and even encourage a light degree of engagement over a long period of time, like the broad web of “thin” or “weak” ties that sociologists and other scholars have discerned in social networking sites. In fact, because the player has to wait for new floors to be built (which can take hours), inventories to be restocked (minutes), and even for new visitors to arrive (seconds), the game almost requires a sporadic, elongated form of play that fits as well into an hour of continued activity as it does into the occasional free moment.

Ironically, I instantly saw Tiny Tower as a mini-capitalist utopia – the high-tech, post-industrial mill village – while my friend Derek saw it as basically communistic. Despite the game’s emphasis on constant consumption and control by the landlord/boss, he has a point. Tiny Tower is a world where everyone who shows up can get an apartment, where everyone can get a job, and a steady flow of resources allow infinite catering to people’s needs – a sort of Soviet tower of babel, reaching to the Heavens, where the boss (substitute “the state”) assigns everyone a job and decides what gets built. The world exists in a bubble where it is impossible to know where the people or the money come from, but it is a world of infinite security and satisfaction, where no one but the construction workers and the occasional delivery person gets their hands all that dirty. (Maybe they live in Shanty Towers or Fawlty Towers – who knows?) Is this the world that the robots will be providing for us? And if it is, will we be the construction workers or the “creatives”? You can be sure we won’t be the landlord.


* My wife and I were already considering this issue when we bought a Roomba several years back. We felt like we ought to take advantage of the opportunity to make friends and get on good terms with the robots while there was still time.

** It’s also hard not to notice that almost all the bitizens have very Anglo names (Gardner, Garrett, Wheeler, Wilson), while the only “ethnic” names are Spanish (Alvarez). No Changs or Patels or Muhammads seem to be living or working in Tiny Tower.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Jigar Shah, “Angry Birds and Our Continued Flailing Attempts at Energy Innovation

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

Elizabeth Blackmar, “Of REITS and Rights: Absentee Ownership in the Periphery

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form

Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, The New Media Reader

Tom Jacobs, “Scholars and the Big Lebowski: Deconstructing the Dude

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  1. […] the garbage for particles of edible nutrition.  We don’t hold it against them when we update our Tiny Tower on a phone swiftly and efficiently made in a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, do […]

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